Likes, Dislikes, Comix & Dykes

Chasing Amy

area theaters

Love and Other Catastrophes Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

YOUTH-ORIENTED SEX comedies are much more inclusive now than when Porky's helped me come of age in the early '80s. To wit: Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy gets hot and bothered over the story of a guy who falls into bed with a self-described dyke, while Emma-Kate Croghan's Love and Other Catastrophes matter-of-factly permutes the college-movie formula by throwing a lesbian relationship into the equation. But except for the 24-year-old Croghan's notably Australian Love (and the 25-year-old Sarah Jacobson's notably undistributed Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore), the gendered rules by which young auteurs are anointed haven't progressed apace. Hence Mr. Smith's privileged status as the modern sex comedy's Great White Hope: beloved for cheaply delivering humor that resonates with the overgrown boys who run the industry, and peripherally entrusted to regale '90s kids about sex, slackers, and dykes.

Exploring identity politics through the arrested development of a male comic-book artist (Ben Affleck), Amy at least succeeds in bringing words like "double-stuff" and "cunt-rag" into the romantic-comedy vocabulary. It would also make one helluva Penthouse forum, as Affleck's intrepid Holden braves the elements at the dyke-bar Meow Mix in pursuit of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), a fellow comic artist and lipstick lesbian whom he soon converts to het monogamy.

How? Let's just say the honest filmmaker awards his hero major points for soul-baring. Smith might also mean to drag his lowest-denominator teen audience into enlightenment by starting with the question, "How can a girl fuck another girl?" But as Alyssa's girlfriend surrenders nearly all screen time to Holden's homophobic jokester buddy (Jason Lee), the film doesn't begin to answer that question. And as Amy merely plugs the chic variety of lesbianism into its genre's familiar maze of narrative obstacles, sexual orientation poses no further complications than, say, being a ghost.

For whatever reason, Smith proves most adept at portraying male sexual paranoia. Alyssa's angst about screwing a guy appears nothing compared to Holden's gut-wrenching turmoil over his girl's promiscuous past--with guys, that is. Seems the lesbian had also experimented with straight group-sex en route to being "sated," as she puts it, by Holden's real love. One could argue the extent to which Amy "cures" its heroine, but Smith's strategy of undermining her voice is unmistakable. Alyssa's three screaming sessions ("I'm fucking gay! That's who I am!") are excruciating to watch: partly for Adams's shrill line-readings, but mainly for how in each case Alyssa's objections segue into kisses, compliments, or a compliant smile. We never get to see her comic book (titled Idiosyncratic Routine), but she does appear as a two-dimensional figure in Holden's own "personal story"--a comic that just so happens to be called Chasing Amy.

The lesbian heroine of Love and Other Catastrophes (Frances O'Connor) is far more fleshed out as co-written by Croghan--who, only somewhat oddly, claims to have been inspired by Smith's Clerks. Indeed, as a low-budget and high-achieving youth manifesto, this Down Under romp shot in Super-16 takes a cue from Smith's first feature (and its home movie-style opening credit scene from Mean Streets). But Croghan's loose-limbed and confident direction is otherwise quite original, not least for presenting O'Connor's Mia as a practicing dyke without making an issue of it. Instead, the film humorously catalogues college universals: barfing in the sink, taking bong-hits before morning classes, hearing your roommate have an orgasm, shedding the skin of an unwanted partner. The impulsive Mia gets Danni (Radha Mitchell) to pay her hefty library fine and then gives Girlfriend her walking papers. She later comes to regret that decision, but Croghan gradually paves the way for a happy ending that doesn't require Mia to switch to guys.

As love appears fairly easy to manage, the most vivid of "other catastrophes" might be Mia's burden of trudging across campus to get signatures for a department change (from cinema studies to cultural studies, which certainly seems worth the effort). Apart from that, Love is pure bliss. In one of the film's deftly captured party scenes, a drunken Kunderan debate between weight and lightness of being suggests the vast difference between Croghan and Smith: One treads nimbly and makes an impression; the other goes out on a limb and his twig breaks. CP

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